- “My friend is going to a really weird church. Could it be a cult?”
- “Are Mormons a cult? Or a Christian church? Or what?”
- “Why is Scientology called a cult and not a religion?”
- “All religions lead to God – right?”
- “Is a cult just a new religion?”
- “Didn’t Christianity start as a cult of Judaism?”
Have you ever wondered about any of these questions? What is a religion, and what sets a cult apart from traditional faiths? What are some red flags that a particular church might be deviating into a cult? Are all religions true? What sets Christianity above all other world religions?
This article will dissect the difference between a religion and a cult. Above all, we will follow the instruction in Scripture: “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
What is a religion?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines religion as:
- a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices;
- the service and worship of God or the supernatural; commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance;
- a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.
A religion informs the worldview of the people who follow it: their opinions of the world, life after death, morality, God, and so on. Most religions reject part or all of God’s revelation through His Word and through creation (Romans 1:18-20), with the obvious exception of Christianity.
- “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
What is a cult?
Merriam-Webster defines a “cult” as:
- a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious;
- great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work; a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion.
In other words, a cult is a belief system that doesn’t fit with mainstream world religions. Some cults are splinter groups from a major religion but with marked theological changes. For instance, Falun Gong split off from Buddhism. They say they are of the “Buddha School” but don’t follow the teachings of the Buddha but of Master Li. The Jehovah Witnesses say they are Christians but don’t believe in the Trinity or that hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment.
Other cults are a “stand-alone” belief system, unlike any particular religion, usually formed by a strong, charismatic leader who often profits financially as its leader. For instance, the science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard invented Scientology. He taught that each person had a “thetan,” something like a soul that passed through multiple lives, and the trauma from those lives causes psychological issues in the present life. A follower has to pay for “auditing” to remove the results of past trauma. Once pronounced “clear,” they can advance to higher levels by paying more money.
Features of a religion
The four major world religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) have certain features:
- They all believe in a god (or multiple gods). Some folks say Buddhism is a religion without a god, yet the Buddha himself believed in Brahma, the “king of the gods.”
- They all have sacred scriptures. For Buddhism, they are the Tripitaka and Sutras. For Christianity, it is the Bible. For Hinduism, it is the Vedas. For Islam, it is the Qur’an (Koran).
- The sacred scriptures usually instruct a religion’s followers in their belief system and worship rituals. All major religions have a concept of life after death, good and evil, and essential values one must follow.
Features of a cult
- They teach things that don’t fit in with the mainstream religion they’re supposed to be part of. For instance, Mormons claim to be Christian, but they believe God was once a man who evolved into God. Brigham Young talked about there being many gods. “Christian” cults often have scriptures besides the Bible that teach beliefs that contradict the Bible.
- Another common feature of cults is the leaders’ level of control over the followers. For example, Scientology’s main campus in Clearwater, Florida is called “Flag.” People come there from all over the country (and the world) to receive “auditing” and counseling at expensive rates. They stay in hotels and eat in restaurants owned by the cult.
The full-time employees for Scientology’s network in Clearwater (all Scientologists) work seven days a week from 7 AM to midnight. They are paid about $50 a week and live in crowded dormitories. Scientology bought up 185 buildings in Clearwater’s downtown waterfront area and gets tax-exempt status for most properties because they are a “religion.” They exercise totalitarian control over the cult members who work in the church’s businesses, isolating them from non-Scientologist family and friends. [i]
- Many cults have a strong, central leader with “prophet” status. This person’s teachings are often held as equal to or above the teaching of the traditional religion. An example is Joseph Smith, founder and “prophet” of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, who wrote the Doctrine & Covenants based on revelations he said he received. He also claimed to have discovered writings from 600 BC to 421 AD written by ancient prophets in America – this is the Book of Mormon.
- They discourage questioning the group’s teachings or its leader’s authority. Brainwashing or mind control might be used to deceive followers. They might discourage interaction with family members, colleagues, or friends who aren’t part of the group. They may warn members that leaving the group will damn them to hell.
- “Christian” cults often discourage just reading the Bible by itself.
“. . . to rely simply on personal Bible reading and interpretation is to become like a solitary tree in a parched land.” Watchtower 1985 Jun 1 p.20 (Jehovah’s Witness)
- Some “Christian” cults’ central teachings align with the Bible and mainstream Christianity; however, they earn “cult status for several other reasons.
- If people are shunned or put out of the church if they question the leadership or disagree on minor doctrinal issues, it might be a cult.
- If a lot of the preaching or teaching isn’t from the Bible but from “special revelation” – visions, dreams, or books other than the Bible – it might be a cult.
- If the church leaders’ sins are ignored or if the pastor has full financial autonomy without oversight, it might be a cult.
- It might be a cult if the church mandates clothing, hair style, or dating life.
- If your church says it’s the only “true” church, and all the others are deceived, you are probably in a cult.
Examples of religions
- Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with 2.3 billion followers. It is the only major religion whose leader, Jesus Christ, said He is God. It is the only religion whose leader was utterly sinless and sacrificed His life for the sins of the world. It is the only religion whose leader resurrected from the dead. It is the only religion where its believers have the Holy Spirit of God living inside them.
- Islam is the second largest religion, with 1.8 billion followers. Islam is monotheistic, worshiping only one god, but they deny Jesus is God, only a prophet. The Qur’an, their scripture, is supposedly the revelation given to their prophet Muhammed. Muslims have no assurance that they will go to heaven or hell; all they can do is hope God will be gracious and forgive their sin.
- Hinduism is the third largest religion, with 1.1 billion followers worshiping six primary gods and hundreds of lesser deities. This religion has numerous contradictory teachings about salvation. Usually, it carries the idea that meditation and faithfully worshiping one’s god (or gods) will bring salvation. For Hindus, “salvation” means release from the endless cycle of death and reincarnation
Examples of cults
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism) was initiated by Joseph Smith in 1830. They teach that other Christians don’t have the entire Gospel. They believe that everyone has the potential to become a god and that Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer, as they are both offspring of the Heavenly Father. They don’t believe that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father are one Godhead but three distinct persons.
- Charles Taze Russell started the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) in the 1870s. They believe that before Jesus was born on earth, God created him as Michael the archangel, and when Jesus was baptized, he became the Messiah. They teach that Jesus is “a” god and not equal to Jehovah God. They don’t believe in hell and think that most people stop existing at death. They believe only 144,000 – the “truly born again” – will go to heaven, where they will be gods. The rest of the baptized faithful will live eternally on the Paradise earth.
- The International Churches of Christ (Boston Movement)(not to be confused with the Church of Christ) began with Kip McKean in 1978. It follows most mainstream evangelical Christianity’s teaching except that its followers believe they are the only true church. The leaders of this cult exercise firm control over their members with a pyramid leadership structure. Young people can’t date people outside the church. They can’t date someone unless the disciplers of the young man and woman agree, and they can only go on a date every other week. Sometimes, they are told who to date. Members are kept busy with group prayer early in the morning, discipling meetings, ministry responsibilities, and worship meetings. They have little time for activities outside of church functions or with people not part of the church. Leaving the church means leaving God and losing one’s salvation because the ICC is the only “true church.”[ii]
Is Christianity a cult?
Some say Christianity was simply a cult – or offshoot – of Judaism. They say the main difference between a cult and a religion is how long it has been around.
However, Christianity isn’t an offshoot of Judaism – it is its fulfillment. Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament scriptures. All the teachings of the Law and Prophets point to Jesus. He was the final Passover lamb, our great High Priest who entered the most holy place with His own blood, the mediator of the new covenant. Nothing that Jesus and His apostles taught contradicts the Old Testament. Jesus attended and taught in the synagogues and the temple in Jerusalem.
Furthermore, Christians don’t isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Quite the opposite. Jesus socialized with tax collectors and prostitutes. Paul encouraged us: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6)
Are all religions true?
It’s illogical to think that all religions are true when they have radically different beliefs. The Bible teaches that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Hinduism has multiple gods. Judaism and Islam deny that Jesus is God. How can they all be true and not agree?
So, no, all the world’s religions and cults are not alternate paths to the same God. All religions differ on the essentials – the nature of God, eternal life, salvation, and so forth.
- “Salvation exists in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Why should I choose Christianity over other religions?
Christianity is the only religion with a sinless leader. The Buddha never claimed to be sinless, nor did Muhammed, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard. Jesus Christ is the only religious leader who died for the sins of the world and the only one that resurrected from the dead. The Buddha and Muhammed are still in their graves. Only Jesus offers you salvation from sin, a restored relationship with God, and eternal life. Only as a Christian will the Holy Spirit infill you and empower you to live a life of victory over sin, be a witness to others, and understand and remember the deep things of God.
Reach out to Him – He’s right there waiting for you. He wants to give you incomprehensible peace. He wants you to experience His love that surpasses knowledge. He wants to bless you with every spiritual blessing. Reach out in faith to Him today!